A Brief Phenomenological Account of the Shooting Spree

Handgun collection - A Brief Phenomenological Account of the Shooting Spree

That gun butt felt so smooth and warm cradled in your palm;
Oh your childhood cried out into your head “they mean to do you harm”

−Bernie Taupin

This brief essay is a section of a larger work entitled “The Thing Called Gun: A Phenomenology of a Shooting Spree.” I presented a paper on this topic in November of 1999 after the Columbine Shootings in April of that year. In 2000, I presented the work again but added interpretation of the ongoing shootings as testimony of the places of our increasing degradation—our schools. My premise was (and in many ways still is) that our schools will be our end of days (unless, of course, we begin to listen to the eschatological other-possibility).* That paper was entitled “The Eschatological Shooting Spree.” Both papers were presented at the Graduate Student Conferences at Duquesne University.

Since then, I have come to focus less on the gun as an embodied, technological augmentation and extension of desire (see Heidegger, 1967, 1971 a, b; Ihde, 1990; Latour, 1999) and more on the mooded, lived situation of the immediate shootings. And so, let’s do that here:

The Shooting Spree
What Heidegger (1962) calls Befindlichkeit may help us further understand our mooded situatedness with things (Heidegger, 1971b). For Heidegger, Befindlichkeit is, in part, a fundamental, always already mooded mode implicit in situations that are there for us. This mood is not an aberration or appendage to our experience; it is, instead, holistically and fundamentally of the experience. Nor is mood an emotion—presumably compartmentalized, knowable, and always directed towards a thing or person. An emotion is a feeling position toward something. For example, one may love one’s dog, or be frustrated with one’s boss. We see how the emotion has an object and a psychological and meaningful direction or position.

A mood is a dis-position and lacks direction and object, which is partially why mood disorders like depression or anxiety are so difficult to understand and feel so utterly hopeless to overcome. However, moods are not necessarily disorders of some sort. Rather, they are everyday experiences and permeate our activities. For example, one might be in a bad mood and not know why, as the mood has no direction. Likewise, one might relate, “I feel rushed,” and in this rushing moodedness, one may have no position to take. We are, instead, in a disposition, spread out and spread thin. Moods have a tendency to overlap and stack up, and so one can feel manic or giddy and at the same time feel dread or forlorn.

The rapid fire gun has us in a mooded rush, which as we know, means both hurried and an intense flow of mood. The word “rapid” denotes both hurried and rushed (rapidus) as well as seizing or grasping. The rapid fire handgun reveals the impetus, ease, and distance of mass murder—not wholly a desire found within one individual, or the so-called objective properties of the gun, but unconcealed in the worldly interrelationship of the gun’s rapidity and the person’s pre-reflective experience.

The thingly gun, with its rapidity, may put us in a mooded charge that I suggest may be, at times, too much to handle, hurrying us, and at once grasping us and the situation at hand. Taking up Heidegger’s (1967) explication of the thingly character of things, Benso (2000) explains “…things disclose themselves as what they are with the horizon of a world, which becomes the mediation for their own disclosure” (pp. 87-88). If the gun discloses itself in a charge of rapidity and rush, it may overwhelm us.   

Do we not recognize that rapidity is at times the bane of our existence? We feel rushed, our texting communication is rushed, our power lunches and power naps are rushed. The rapid fire killer, we may interpret, is not forging an emotion of anger directed toward a given individual or individuals. The rapid fire killer is in a dispersed mood of killing.

When one has a “fling,” one is in the mood, the spirit moves one, and this moodedness lends to the vulnerability of the fling, the over-indulgence, if you will. Interestingly, to fling something is to moodedly let something fly, wildly, and without position or direction. The fling may feel like a reckless abandoning as a kind of freeing up but at the time feeling out of control. The shooting spree is a mooded fling of violence. The quickening body is in a sudden increase—explosive, and a bursting forth, im-mediately. The hand-gun and the fire-arm are now thrust out as the fist once was, as a flying fist of extension, propulsion and hardness; the melee ensues, which is the gun, finger, arm, and spree—the spree is a barrage and a flail.  

The word “spree” (esprit) means to do in excess. Spree is related to spirit and this should not surprise us. We are taken away (spirited away) by the spree and, at times, horribly inspirited; spirit is forceful. Spree is a binge, a rampage, and revelry of activity that has duration and mood. Here I interpret the shooting spree as an atmosphere, setting, and as a collective, or as the place of an unstable liminal-threshold where possibilities compel us in a rush. Merleau-Ponty (1962) tell us “…all things are concretions of a setting, and any explicit perception of a thing survives in virtue of a previous communication with a certain atmosphere” (p. 320). The rapid fire gun’s presencing is, dreadfully, an actant within the atmosphere and the collective of the spree (see Latour, 1999). The wanton nature of the spree’s brooding range becomes the horizon of possibilities for the destruction of the other and of lived distance.  

Latour (1999) offers us an important and compelling distinction between humans and non-humans; non-humans are not simply objects or things, they are “full-fledged actors in our collective” in which we humans are “entangled” (pp. 174-175). According to Latour, “Humans, for millions of years, have extended their social relations to other actants with which, with whom, they have swapped many properties, and with which, with whom, they formed a collective” (p. 198).

We can compare the overindulging of TV channel surfing to the use of the rapid fire handgun. Images appear quickly in succession—the image alive, so to speak, in one millisecond, and dead the next. Likewise, note the overindulgence of the cell phone now that it is small and carried in our pockets. Further, we can imagine today’s shopping spree in relation to the change from shopping in a town to shopping in a mall—so much, and so accessible; and what of internet shopping? A click of the mouse allows much to be rapidly seen, bought, rushed-shipped and so on. Read the news and one discovers that we are perpetually on buying, spending, and shooting sprees. Therefore, the shooting spree is a mooded collection of humans and non-humans, rushed on together, brought together; the spree is a “sub-world” within the lifeworld where there is a torrent of activity (Ihde, 1990).

We see then that to spree is to spoil in the overwhelming possibilities born from technological objects that be-thing us (Heidegger, 1971b; van den Berg, 1970). And are we not asked to resist? Watch TV less, use our cell phones less, and get off the internet? These technological advances challenge and problematize our control over our mooded desires. In fact, such desires may not exist in this quality without the enlivening presencing of the technological object. The “channel suffer” and the “couch potato” were not born yet; no such human kind of being existed. Likewise, we may state that the rapid fire gun co-creates a shooting spree persona, a rampage killer, and it is this persona and situation that reveals more about our relationship with the gun (Newman, Fox, Roth, Mehta & Harding, 2004).

The subtlety of the spree will be lost on us if we assume that the spree is simply wild behavior; it is not. The spree is objective and calculative, picking off one at a time its victims at a distance. The reckless aspect of the spree tells us of its waves of alacrity and its flinging outward. The spree is thoughtless and sudden but the spree is not indiscriminate, it just does not dwell (see Heidegger, 1971a). The spree is not reflective; it does not pace itself as it has little dynamics because its rhythm is but one scattered salvo.

The shooting spree, we have said, flings outward, hasty and uncontrollably, but we have not yet disclosed the destruction of distance that is characteristic of the spree (Heidegger, 1967). The spree brings all things nearer. The shopping spree happens only when the objects of desire are brought in and consumed hurriedly. Human beings feel the mooded existence of lived space. We allow closeness when we truncate distance with our directed, telos-technologies (“de-distancing,” see Heidegger, 1962). Our telephones, televisions, and internet bring others near without resorting to their objective presence. To kill another, from a far, is to both annihilate distance and to kill intimacy (Heidegger, 1967). How undignified it is to kill from a far; after all, the killer does not even give the courtesy of looking into the others’ eyes, feeling the others’ body, and putting some effort into the act. The spree is a hypnagogic jolt of object to objects in a flash. In a way, the spree is an irreverent orgy of human and non-humans because each has their mystery (or alterity), but this mystery is no longer awe inspiring. For Ihde (1990), the object has an “alterity relation” in that it can be other than what we naturally think that it is. This alterity, or otherness beyond its assumed reality, allows the object to have a ‘quasi-autonomy’ in our relations with it.  

The spree-ridden threshold should frighten us because, as if on the breach, it holds all possibilities. The rapidity and rush of the semiautomatic gun makes for easy killing, and killing many a brutal actuality. The shooting spree killer usually comes in like a zombie: lifeless, transfixed, and emotionless, and yet a horribly capable automaton. The shooting spree killer is already deadened, if you will—an object killer. We see now that the spree killer is not fully in one position or another; the spree-killer is in a liminal disposition, which is to say in and on the brink of the mooded spree. What keeps the killer going is not a cause or an emotion, it is the spree itself as its vexing powers sustain, like a self-generating whirlwind. Rarely do you hear accounts of this kind of killer as angry or crying, or even speaking to anyone. In fact, the killer we are most frightened of is the one who is the most removed and fears death the least, treating self and the other like two disunited, fatally interacting objects.   

As Benso (2000) says, “Phenomenologically, then, things pack and harass existence in a variety of ways which determine the spectrum of not only bodily, but also spiritual, feelings and emotions” (p. 144). Moreover, if things have an “alterity relation” as Ihde (1990) proposes, then perhaps we can establish the grounds for an ethical engagement at the “ontological between” (Buber, 1947) human beings and guns. In my full length work on the phenomenology of the gun within the spree, I try to work the closure of the spree as a closure and dis-enclosure, which will, I hope, offer possibilities of re-engagement not just with the gun as an objectively present thing or as readiness-to-hand (Heidegger, 1962), but with the mooded presencing and gathering that is the spree.

Benso, S. (2000). The face of things: A different side of ethics. State University of New York Press.

Buber, M. (1947). Between man and man. (R.G. Smith, Trans.). New York:, NY Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. (J. Macquarie and E. Robinson, Trans.). New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Heidegger, M. (1967). What is a thing? (W. B. Barton, V.  Deutsch, Trans.). Washington, D.C.: H. Regnery Company.

Heidegger, M. (1977).  The question concerning technology (W. Lovitt, Trans.). In D. F. Krell (Ed.) Basic writings (pp. 311-341). New York, NY: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1954).

Heidegger, M. (1971a). Building dwelling thinking. In Poetry, language, thought. (pp. 141-160). (A. Hoftstadter, Trans.). Harper Perennial Modern Classics.  

Heidegger, M. (1971b). The thing. In Poetry, language, thought. (pp. 161-184). (A. Hoftstadter, Trans.). Harper Perennial Modern Classics.  

Ihde, D. (1990). Technology and the lifeworld: From garden to earth. Indiana University Press.

Kearney, R. (2002). The God who may be: A phenomenological study. Modern Theology, 18(1), 77.

*Please note that I am not suggesting conservatism here, or nostalgia. I am not advocating that we go back to something; I am, instead, suggesting we may wake up to something, which may be the possible other (any other person) as having infinite within the finite; someone distinct and yet remains a khora, a potentiality (both potent and impending) and then brings a thou that shall not commit violence (see Kearney, 2002).

— Robert G. McInerney

Today’s guest contributor, Dr. Robert G. McInerney, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Point Park University. He teaches Social and Community Psychology as well as Qualitative Methods in the Human Sciences.

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